During South Africa’s winter, beginning around June and stretching through late August, pictures and videos of Rocklands’ creamy orange, black-streaked, and rounded sandstone saturate my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Climbers, predominantly Western ones, escape the unproductive summer conditions of their locales for Rocklands’ winter. By the time I departed New York on July 15 2017 for Cape Town, I had seen innumerable photos and watched the same ten boulders being climbed in hundreds of different videos of which thousands more were available. Big Up Productions’ Progression, featuring Tommy Caldwell, Paul Robinson, and Daniel Woods bouldering in Rocklands, pioneered the template for the endless reproduction of scenic vistas and bullet sandstone, to the extent that iconic climbs such as Amandla, Sky and El Corazon were familiar forms in a foreign land. Before I set foot in Rocklands, I thought I knew what Rocklands, South Africa would be like.
Within seconds of leaving the Cape Town airport, it became apparent that what I had seen was a cropped image, carefully composed to omit the realities of South Africa. Townships flanked the highway. Wires trailed limply from corrugated roofs to a raised transformer, itself connected to dozens more wires leading to other roofs. Tall fences with loops of barbed wire strung over the top enclosed luxurious golf courses adjacent to the townships. Signs, rendered in menacing reds and neon yellows, warned of secured and surveilled homes, businesses and entire districts. Security guards stood on business’ doorstep in the upscale districts, and every house had barred windows. The nicer homes had electrified wire strung atop the walls enclosing their yards; some had aestheticized, “designer” spikes on the fences. Every kilometer of the two hundred and thirty two between Clanwilliam, the town nearest Rocklands’ climbing, and Cape Town, contained multiple people of color hitchhiking. There were no white hitchhikers. On those same roads, white drivers raced by in new BMWs and decked out Land Rovers. This juxtaposition of wealth and racialized poverty, and the boundaries erected to prevent the latter from accessing the former, struck me as evidence of apartheid’s still-beating heart. Despite the countless pictures and hours of climbing footage, I’d never seen this image of South Africa.
Given the volume of Rocklands-related media, and the inescapable racial inequities in South Africa, the silence on this matter could not be accidental. That isn’t to say that there is a racist conspiracy here. It’s more likely, banal, and pernicious that the climbing community’s class and social position as a whole has shielded us from noticing what is in plain sight.
Perhaps one reason the climbing community has been slow to give words to this problem is that it involves our own complicity, as opposed to that of an enemy working against the community. Recent activism by climber and filmmaker Jimmy Chin, the Access Fund, and Patagonia has focused on fighting the Trump administration’s executive order to reduce the land allotted for Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, priming it for natural resource exploitation. An enemy has been found in our existential crises personified: Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Although fighting for access, and orienting the climbing industry and community to ethically meet the challenge of climate change, augurs well for preserving what we can of our sport’s lifeblood, it falls comfortably within the boundaries of our self-interest. Responding to an injustice that actively benefits us has proven to be a trickier matter.
Publishing a picture on social media does not solely entail showing the world what you’re doing; it’s about telling the world how you wish to be seen. In a sense then, posting a photo of the Utah desert—hashtag Bears Ears – is an act of projecting one’s political identity. In order for social media to function in this way, existing discourses are channelled into the medium. Activists, amplified by the media, have articulated narratives of the fundamental injustice of exploiting resources for the benefit of a few at the expense of our common ownership, which are then utilized and expanded upon by social media users. In this way a mass political consciousness is formed, to the extent that a picture and a hashtag can function as shorthand for a larger political discourse.
But what happens when there is no obvious political narrative to channel? In Rocklands, the silence of the dispossessed is made to seem natural. When my companion and I asked the Clanwilliam Hotel’s concierge about the segregation of blacks from whites, she, a white person, said matter-of-factly that they, black Africans, 'choose to live separately' before adding in an odd non-sequitur that 'sometimes their water gets shut off'. Later in the trip, in response to my telling of the above encounter, an academic I was driving to the Cape Town airport said that South Africa was not atypical for a developing country, as if brutality, being the norm, ceased to be brutal. The premise of such a seemingly innocuous statement is that the racial disparities in South Africa are constituted by something akin to the laws of physics, rather than the cumulative effect of centuries of power wielded by whites at the expense of people of color. It seems to me that instances such as these illustrate our ignorance of the continuing struggles on the part of radical African activists in the realms of civil rights, labor, and land reform. Reading about these activists and their political struggles is, to be clear, not just a matter of choking down your veggies; it’s about politicizing the seemingly natural disparities around us.
The alternative is clear enough. The idyllic vistas that make up the b-roll of so many climbing films, and the ubiquitous Pakhuys mountains landscape photos, collude to express a vision of paradise as raw and untarnished, uncorrupted by the social and environmental mess of cities. However, the essence of paradise here is not perfection, it is exclusion. For this paradise to exist, the relationship between the landowning descendants of white European colonizers and the dispossessed black Africans must be suppressed.
In this way, the climbing media of Rocklands functions as a sort of wish fulfilment, depicting a paradise devoid of the elements that implicate our complicity in dystopia. Acknowledging this suppression logically leads us to a caveated notion of paradise: Paradise for us, where 'us' takes the form of the predominantly white, upwardly mobile, and professional class of climbers that travel to Rocklands. Although climbers are generally eager to self-identify as belonging to a 'climbing community' when the topic at hand reflects well on us, reckoning with our impact on local African communities will necessitate a sobering appraisal of our presence. Questions of power—our effect as a group of people—must replace the popular approach of white guilt and self-flagellation. What’s needed here isn’t personal moral purification. Instead, we must ask who benefits from our tourism: White landowners or the dispossessed black Africans who work their land? We have to ask hard questions about the forced enclosure of lands that used to sustain the lives of African communities. At a fundamental level, we must shift our perspective away from a view of Rocklands as a pristine playground, ready for our enjoyment, and towards a perspective that acknowledges that all is not well in paradise.
A writer and climber based in Boston.